Join the Crowd

John Haber
in New York City

Chelsea's Massive 2006 Fall Openings

The song has it wrong. The bigger they come, the harder it is to find a seat at the bar. At least it must have felt that way one Thursday evening, when Chelsea's fall season got off to a very early and very, very big start.

Not even honest reporting, much less pop sociology, relieves a critic of serious work. At some point, I still have to describe good art. And I shall—elsewhere. This year, the event itself grew so large as to crowd out for the moment everything but questions of its own meaning. It happened last year and the year before, too. Maybe, increasingly, art criticism will amount to little more than a cultural post mortem. Matthew Ritchie's The Universal Adversary (Andrea Rosen, 2006)

Still, let me invite myself for now to join the crowd. Where did they flock, and how exactly is it growing? Have art and artists become merely cynical about it all, or have they taken on messianic pretensions? Could, as one critic asks, all the bustle have put fresh demands on New York's top museums?

Pop stars and death stars

Just one year before, in September 2005, the jump-start caught me by surprise, and so did the throngs that came to see it. They startled even many who make a living sorting through stacks of invitations and creating "fall previews." They also prompted still more speculation about the room for creative growth left in mainstream galleries, amid what one critic dubbed the "battle for Babylon." As I acknowledged myself, "If I needed confirmation that contemporary art had joined the entertainment industry, I had it that first Thursday in September."

Probably most artists would know better: somehow art has attained all the trappings of mass entertainment, only without the financial rewards. What that means for a creative future clearly will not sort itself out anytime soon—not when Postmodern has become a historical style, modernist models persist, and art can reflect on its own lack of authenticity, often with brilliance and, yes, even originality. It sometimes seems as if the public has too short a memory and artists too long a one, but they both had a field day on the first Thursday in September 2006.

At 5:30, it looked like any other long, dreary workday in the galleries. By 7:00, it looked like a street fair. People spilled over the sidewalk and into the street. Fire stairs opened forcibly, to relieve the pressure on elevators. Perhaps some gallery-goers still came for a friend or simply restless for summer to end. Like me, however, many now came for an event, as if half in fear what it will look like next year and the year after—or on the changing Lower East Side.

They had every reason to expect one. Unlike last year, the papers and weeklies took notice of the coming event. The evening even had a star—or perhaps the Death Star. Frank Gehry's first Manhattan project had already acquired its skin on 19th Street, a smooth, bulging and rippling surface that effectively discourages a look within. In a bow to Modernism or else a deconstruction of it, frosted glass panels darken and clarify, if only slightly, where the occupants will perceive windows. This Gehry project has no loose flanges, but also few right angles that I could detect, and the glass takes on twisted reflections of the buildings across the street or beyond.

Chelsea, too, is bulging at the seams, if not always as creatively—and only starting with David Zwirner's expansion to three adjacent buildings across the way. Black and White has joined a cluster of former Brooklynites and others—with an outward face on West 27th and West 28th Streets, an inward face on a newly polished warehouse space awaiting the mall to come. Now that Roebling Hall, a block away, has shut its Brooklyn outpost, one could almost call the triangle west of Eleventh Avenue Williamsburg on the Hudson. Like Maccarone's move in the works, from Canal Street to the west side, it serves as another reminder of how the sprawl beyond Chelsea and into club-like fringe galleries has not yet provided any idealist's hoped-for alternative.

Am I complaining? If in 2005 I found myself bewildered by all that I could take in, this time I simply surrendered and enjoyed it. Of course, plenty had not yet opened. Many tonier galleries hold openings on weekend evenings, presumably after the nymphs and the hoi polloi have departed, and other shows open only in coming weeks. Perhaps one will see a reaction, in which other galleries will defer openings from Thursdays to appear prestigious enough. For now, I just caught as much as I could, but if you expect me to give away which gallery gave out a microbrew rather than Rolling Rock, think again.

Are we home yet?

Yet eventually the buzz wears off, even after a good party, and so does the shock of Chelsea's turning into one. Now if only critical theory could do as much to sustain the high as the critique. Sure enough, by Saturday afternoon most galleries had returned to the bustle that now passes for normal. After the first September openings, one might expect more and more artists to confront the commercialization head-on, but irony is so 1990s. Still, at least a few have a Postmodern flavor, so why not start there?

Adam McEwen has himself proclaimed the death of irony, but ironically, to be sure. At the Whitney Biennial, he actually posted its obituaries, New York Times style, drawing on major figures of the bad old days. Naturally he had tossed in artists, politicians, and popular entertainers, assuming one knows the difference. Now he offers the triple distancing effects of photographs, abstraction, and their repetition. The nearly indistinguishable photos, all in the lurid style of inkjet color printing, depict LeFrak City, a fabled model for mass-produced middle-class housing. The monochrome paintings amount to random patterns on a thoroughly bland background—inspired, he swears, by aerial bombings—and the dots amount to wads of chewing gum.

All this comes with no end of finger pointing. Art like this keeps repeating, Get it? If only one had more to get. I could savor the repetition of repetition—from a housing complex and its role in urban history to composition, medium, and the gallery setting—but the old targets, even the bombing targets, just look old. Maybe bubble gum conflates the impulsiveness of painterly gesture with that of a teenager, or maybe bubble gum as an adjective recalls the ironies of Pop Art cartoons, but mostly it adds the yuck factor. Where the chocolate abstractions of Kelley Walker had specific artistic and political allusions, McEwen settles for bringing the Farrelly brothers to canvas.

The combination of older compositions and such gross-out materials as chocolate has plenty of antecedents, such as Dieter Roth, but few can top Vic Muniz. However, for once he serves up comforting echoes from art history, the cooler medium of photography, and less disgusting junk. This time Muniz creates reproductions of the art world's silliest nudes, from Titian to J. A. D. Ingres. One can hardly miss the double meaning in the exhibition title, "Pictures of Junk." At first one sees light, monochrome drawings over photos of trash heaps, but Muniz outlines the figures from old paintings, too, in junk. A sped-up video shows how it works.

On the cusp between New York City and Long Island, LeFrak City promised that "if we lived here, Daddy, we'd be home by now." By this time you, too, may want to ditch Picabia on steroids and head home. Jennifer Dalton's The Collector-ibles (Winkleman Plus Ultra 2006)Thankfully, Jennifer Dalton brings her irony a bit more up to date. She even keeps her sense of humor—and invites one to work a bit to share the joke. At the Armory Show, the biggest of the spring art fairs, she exhibited a large cabinet, its tiny figures in polished metal and carefully tailored outfits resembling antique toys. They represent a bit of research on her part, into the top collectors, and I had to laugh at their cute little shopping bags. One can enjoy the paradox of collectibles as a critique of commerce, and she seems quite happy to let one decide whether to turn the critique on her.

Otherwise Dalton gets down and dirty, as if to atone for the art-world action figures' aura of value. A slide show on gender inequalities in art could pass for an eighth-grade classroom presentation, had not the kids of gallery-goers all mastered PowerPoint by now and drilled for their SATs. A pretend chalkboard tallies reviews of women artists by "Jerry" and "Roberta," and one can choose to take home a rubber bracelet labeled Loser or Pig. Dalton has in effect updated the Guerilla Girls for a decade of insiders, when the audience just happens to know that a married couple named Jerry and Roberta writes for The Village Voice and The Times. The show feels suspiciously entertaining compared to the Guerilla Girls's former novelty and savagery, or maybe the arts have just learned to relax a bit.

The new tenants

Still, the outposts of irony have a renewed point: can a mall stay classy while letting in all those upstart stores—and even their customers? Do not dress down too soon either, for three flagship tenants completed massive renovations within weeks of Chelsea's extravagant fall start. With its move to 24th Street, Marianne Boesky completes an imposing row indeed, extending to Gagosian at the end of the block. Meanwhile, just two doors down, Andrea Rosen and Luhring Augustine have a face lift, and they can afford a stately front. Galleries like these do not expect or allow one to peek through glass, take their measure, and move on.

No wonder if the artists within have developed messianic complexes. Barnaby Furnas, for one, has found Jesus, at least on canvas, and one can hardly help associating the full face with conventions for an artist's self-portrait. That blank expression and scruffy beard would fit in fine at an opening. Of course, the muted colors and bruised surfaces echo the shroud of Turin, but art as a direct imprint of the sublime has its heritage as well. Minor improvements on God's handiwork—such as fashionable cartoon stylization, splatters of blood-red paint, and dollar signs in one eye—suggest what the deity could pull off if only he had an MFA and a really good dealer.

In the back room, Furnas even parts the Red Sea. One could almost mistake the red paint washing in from either side for a Morris Louis, but not even Louis and Moses together could work on this scale. Furnas scores his points, at the expense of modernist myths, the aura of the work of art, religious fundamentalism, and a public eager to believe. Not a bad score, after one assumed that irony is dead. Still, with one after another largely irrelevant squiggle, the shots grow cheaper and cheaper. That leaves an artist who takes his own status and his own irony way too seriously.

Matthew Ritchie wants to encompass being and time, too. At Rosen he spills over the new walls. Spatters of iron, oil, and marker cover the front room, both on canvas and on layered transparencies that cause the image to shift as one passes. The rusted iron itself implies the arrow of time, as do fragmentary equations here and there from thermodynamics and relativity. A black sculpture in the center weaves upward toward a hole in the ceiling, where a muffled voice refuses to elucidate its mysteries. Perhaps it belongs to Ritchie, to God, or to the "Universal Adversary" of the exhibition title—assuming the artist can tell the difference.

The war of invented worlds continues behind a wall, where black spiral stairs could pass for more of Ritchie's sculpture. Upstairs, one can peek down through that hole: what looked like a bursting through to another space actually folds back into the exhibition proper. How could I have imagined a boundary between the work and the world? How could I have imagined a boundary to the universe?

Ritchie fits with any number of artists who combine drawing with installation and who perceive both as unruly mappings of space. He exhibited with several in "Remote Viewing" last year at the Whitney, where his sculpture served as a centerpiece, much as it does here for him alone—and there, too, one left it behind for other venues. Like Furnas, he cannot stay long enough himself to worry about details, and that made me wonder whether I should bother myself. Like Furnas, too, he cannot avoid mythic pretensions of his own. Unlike for Furnas, however, the glibness has a point, for it, too, folds into the entropic structure. Ritchie's universe takes its own good time to fall apart, and part me wants him around at the end to paint the apocalypse.

Better than museums?

I could point to equally extravagant sculpture installations—or to less extravagant yet finer fall exhibitions, and I shall separately review more than a few. Still, one has first to acknowledge that early fall apocalypse. If you enjoyed Chelsea's extravagant fall opening and its outsize new tenants, the fun never stops: now you get to gossip about what it all means. That alone suggests no easy answers, for you will have joined yet another noisy crowd. And if Chelsea has taken on institutional scale, at least one critic is hoping it will outdo museums in relevance and vibrancy.

Only an open-ended dialogue can fairly comment on the struggle between creativity and commerce, as in the conclusion of a quirky but challenging textbook, by the editors of October. Still, as one-man shows go, one can hardly knock Jerry Saltz. His description of the "Superparadigm," "Neo-Mannerism," and the "Battle for Babylon" caught a fair balance of cynicism and hope. If I sound both happy and dismayed, in The Voice he tilts decidedly toward optimism, with a ringing defense of Chelsea after all. Part of me cheers along with him, but part of me sobs quietly instead.

If things feel out of control, Saltz sees an up side: that means out of control of the "bigwigs in the art world." It means a healthy alternative to most major museums, which refuse to dedicate space to lasting displays of living artists, especially now that Dia:Chelsea has skipped town, the New Museum has departed Chelsea, and P.S. 1 is learning from MoMA. It means "something vast, multilingual, collaborative, inconsistent, contradictory, and coming from everywhere." But is it also leading everywhere? Can the multiple insider and outsider scenes of today really exemplify what David Carrier calls "museum democracy"?

Yes, galleries do promote contemporary art as no museum can, which explains how art enters museums in the first place. And yes, one can no longer impose Modernism's insider culture of a few dealers on the five boroughs or global scene today. Yet that means artists can no longer all know one another, support one another, fight with one another, and influence one another, as the Whitney describes in its current exhibition of American artists touched by Picasso. I can only feel sorry for artists lacking just those chances. Should one remember the avant-garde as a closed, mostly male circle or a cultural explosion? The same question in different form very much applies today.

Nor would I complain that only the Met sets aside galleries for permanent display of recent art. For one thing, neither does Chelsea: if a gallery showed the same work for nearly a year, as in the Modern's contemporary wing, it would go out of business. For another, who knows what the Whitney will do after its planned expansion and new home close to Chelsea? Moreover, the Met allows one to return again and again to the same work only by caring so little about it. Art of the last twenty years adds just a half-hidden mezzanine to another static, overbearing wing in its grand survey of human and inhuman civilization.

The Modern does contemporary art a favor by continuing to collect it, over conservative objections. It does even more by continuing to insist on changing connections and discordances between Modernism and the present. By growing the collection and shuffling the display, it renounces part of its original mission, for it no longer hopes to define a contemporary canon once and for all. Would anyone really want that pretension back, like Walter Benjamin with his "arcade project" taken over by Wal-Mart? For that, one can always turn to the vast expanses of Zwirner or Gagosian—and be prepared to hold one's breath.

BACK to John's arts home page

Adam McEwen ran at Nicole Klagsbrun through October 14, 2006, Vic Muniz at Sikkema Jenkins though October 14, Jennifer Dalton at Winkleman Plus Ultra though October 7, Barnaby Furnas ran at Marianne Boesky through October 21, Matthew Ritchie at Andrea Rosen though October 28. Jerry Saltz's typically intriguing article reached the stands October 4.


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